Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Brother, I'm Dying

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Brother, I'm Dying

by Edwidge Danticat

Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat X
Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 288 pages

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A Short History of Haiti
The Republic of Haiti occupies about one-third of the island of Hispaniola (the second largest island in the Carribean; map); the remainder being the Dominican Republic (Hayti means mountainous land in the native Arawak* language).

In 1697, the French colonized the island and imported African slaves to work the lush coffee and sugar plantations. As in other colonial environments, the two-tiered society of elite whites and subordinated blacks fostered unsustainable tension. The slaves brought with them the practice of voodoo which clashed with Catholicism. The French, for their part, were exceptionally harsh in their treatment of their slaves. Lastly, a class of mulattos arose from the offspring of slaves and slave owners, creating a class system that is still present today—the majority of Haitians are dark-skinned, voodoo worshiping Creoles, and a minority are light-skinned, Catholic, French speakers. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the tension crested. The mulattos and slaves ousted Napoleon in 1804, following a revolt that began in 1791, creating the first black independent nation and the only nation to arise from a slave rebellion. In 1844 the island split in two; the larger eastern part became the Dominican Republic, and a third of the island to the west, smaller than the state of Maryland, remained Haiti.

Yet Haiti's entanglement with dominant nations did not end with its independence. As World War I dawned, France, Britain, and Germany controlled Haiti's ports. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. Marines to invade Haiti in 1915, ostensibly on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine, which protects the Americas from European intervention, but more likely to protect U.S. investments and secure passage to the Panama Canal. The United States occupied Haiti for the next nineteen years, establishing a mulatto regime that suppressed the black population. The occupation officially ended in 1934, but the U.S. indirectly controlled Haitian politics and the economy until 1947.

The next half-century witnessed new rounds of political violence, unstable regimes, and populist revolts. In 1957, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier was elected on his promise to end the rule of elite mulattos and grant blacks a voice in the government. However, his presidency hardened into a police state; he created the Tonton Macoutes, a paramilitary organization, to hold the populace in check and he created a lifetime presidency for himself. He died in 1971 and was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who continued the repressive regime. In 1986, opposition to his politics had grown so intense that Duvalier fled to France with U.S. assistance.

It wasn't until 1990 that Haiti held what was widely considered its first free elections. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a leftist Roman Catholic priest, won in a landslide on the basis of his popular sermons against the Duvaliers. But only seven months later, he was ousted in a military coup and fled to Washington for three years. His supporters continued to rally for him in Haiti, and the army retaliated with raids and violence. During this time, tens of thousands of Haitians fled for Florida in small boats, but most were returned to their home country. In 1994, Aristide returned after 20,000 U.S. troops had deposed the military junta and stabilized the country. Aristide dismantled the military and lobbied for free-market reforms. After leaving office in 1996, he again reclaimed the presidency in 2000 but this time his election was considered fraudulent and there were huge demonstrations demanding his resignation. He was ousted again in 2004, the bicentennial of Haiti's independence, and violent protests became a daily occurrence. Citizens routinely witnessed violence between neighborhood gangs, Haitian police, and UN peacekeeping forces.

Today, Haiti has the dubious honor of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a population of 7.5 million, an infant mortality rate of 74/1,000 and a median age of 18

*The term Arawak is used to describe the Amerindians the Spanish encountered in the Caribbean, which included the Taino, Lucayan, Bimini, Nepoya, Suppoyo and Caribs. As a people, they had effectively died out within 100 years of 1492, due to smallpox and interbreeding with European and African settlers.

This article was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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